PUDENTILLA, AND CHRISTIANITY'
Vigiliae Christianae 54, 2000, 80-94
1968 P.G. Walsh for the first time suggested that Apuleius' novel Metamorphoses
(Met.) was composed in response to contemporaneous Christianity, an
idea he has recently repeated: 'this fervid recommendation of the religion of
Isis may represent a counterblast to the meteoric spread of Christianity in
Africa in the later second century'.[i]
Whereas Walsh himself has not added further evidence to support his theory, an
elaborate defence of it was lately undertaken by V. Schmidt.[ii]
By closely examining the crucial passage 9,14 in the Met.,[iii]
Schmidt showed that characters in Apuleius' novel use terminology current in
religious confrontations between Christians and pagans, which seems an
indication that the novel was actually also intended as a reaction to
wisely warns us at the end of his article that, given the complex
narratological situation in the novel, we should not regard the Isis religion
of the Met. as an ideological alternative that was fully
endorsed by Apuleius himself. Two points, I would suggest, now seem
established beyond reasonable doubt: not only was Apuleius aware of the
existence of Christianity, but he did not feel much sympathy for it either.
Neither point, however, is immediately clear from Apuleius' extant writings,
since they contain no mention of the new religion.
can now extend the scope to Apuleius' minor works.[iv]
It may be worthwhile to examine whether there are any further anti-Christian
traces in his philosophical treatises and speeches. This is what I propose to
do in this article, intended as a sequel to Schmidt's study.
with the philosophical writings, we are immediately confronted with great
problems. First, there is no scholarly agreement on the authenticity of works
attributed to Apuleius; and second, their relative chronology remains
uncertain, although most scholars would now agree in postulating dates earlier
than the Met. For the purpose of the present inquiry, however, we may
leave these matters undecided and just examine the relevant texts.[v]
provide little or nothing which seems to come anywhere near the invective of
the Met. Nowhere in the bookish treatise De dogmate Platonis on
the life and teachings of Plato, nor in the scientific works on cosmology and
logic, De mundo and De interpretatione, do we find any reference
to Christianity, either directly or indirectly.
may be explained by their possibly early dates of composition, but above all
by their genre and special nature. Although literary embellishments are not
completely missing, all three works serve a rather modest aim, compared to the
rest: they explain and summarize Greek philosophical theory from the classical
age, focusing on Plato and Aristotle. Indeed, De Mundo and De
interpretatione are Latin translations from Greek orginals which may date
back to a much earlier period, when Christianity was still in its infancy or
did not even exist.[vi]
remarks apply to the Hermetic Asclepius, but here the Greek original
dates from a much later, Christian period.[vii] At least some elements in it have been interpreted as
a rejection of Christianity. The most important passage is Ascl. 24-26,
an apocalyptic complaint on the decline of Egypt: for instance, it is
prophesied that the land will be full of tombs and corpses instead of temples
and gods, that people will prefer shadows to light and despise all doctrines
about the soul, and that the gods will withdraw from mankind. Such elements
easily lend themselves to an anti-Christian interpretation; already Augustine
took the entire section as a prediction by 'Hermes' of the final defeat of
pagan religion (cf. Augustine C.D. 8, 23).[viii]
However, these references can be explained from the Egyptian Hermetic
tradition, and on the whole they are so vague and ambivalent as to be
unconvincing. In his recent Dutch translation of the Asclepius, G.
Quispel plainly states that there is nothing in the treatise that would
suggest real knowledge of Christian teaching.[ix]
the Florida, a collection of 23 extracts of speeches by Apuleius, and
in the philosophical discourse De Deo Socratis[x]
we also find no manifest allusions to Christianity in particular, but there is
a decidedly pagan sensibility pervading these pieces. The opening section of
the Florida presents a warmly religious picture, which is worth quoting
ferme religiosis uiantium moris est, cum aliqui lucus aut aliqui locus sanctus
in uia oblatus est, uotum postulare, pomum adponere, paulisper adsidere: ita
mihi ingresso sanctissimam istam ciuitatem, quanquam oppido festinem,
praefanda uenia et habenda oratio et inhibenda properatio est.
enim iustius religiosam moram uiatori obiecerit aut ara floribus redimita aut
spelunca frondibus inumbrata aut quercus cornibus onerata aut fagus pellibus
coronata, uel enim colliculus sepimine consecratus uel truncus dolamine
effigiatus uel cespes libamine umigatus uel lapis unguine delibutus. Parua
haec quippe et quanquam paucis percontantibus adorata, tamen ignorantibus
is a common custom with religious travellers, when they come upon some grove
or sacred place, to beseech favour, offer up prayers, and sit down a while; in
like manner, now that I have entered this most hallowed city, though I am in
great haste, I must entreat favour, make oration, and check my hurry. For the
traveller can find no fitter motives for a religious pause in an altar decked
with flowers, or a dell shaded with foliage, or an oak loaded with horns, or a
beech festooned with skins, or even a consecrated and enclosed hillock, or a
trunk chiselled into the form of an image, or a turf redolent of libation, or
a stone bedewed with ointment. These are small things indeed, and though
adored by the few who scrutinise them, are passed unnoticed by those who are
not aware of them.'[xi]
general atmosphere is clearly religious from the start. We know nothing for
sure about the context of the fragment, but the speaker is obviously
addressing an audience while entering an important town, possibly Oea.[xii]
Here, he says, he must pause and deliver a speech; this is presented as an
almost sacred task, which is literally compared to the religious duty inspired
by typical elements of pagan religion.
specifies no less than eight of them, in a piece of exquisite writing. All
elements show the same syntactical pattern and word order: a noun followed by
a participle with an adjunct in the ablative (ara floribus redimita).
The words seem carefully chosen to impress the audience by their very sound;
for example, the first four elements have female endings (redimita,
inumbrata, onerata, coronata), whereas the second group of four has male
endings (consecratus, effigiatus, umigatus, delibutus). The ensuing
'homoeoptoton' creates a deliberate jingle, while further complex sound
patterns are produced by additional internal correspondence in rhythm, number
of syllables, and sound (e.g. sepimine, dolamine, libamine, unguine).[xiii]
speaker clearly delights in elaborating such religious details, which are not
strictly necessary for his argument. They are presented largely for their own
sake, and consciously celebrate concrete expressions of Roman religion. The
repeated word religiosus drives home the point.
'pagan miniature' can be confronted with a passage in the Christian apologist
Minucius Felix, probably also an African by birth. At the beginning of his Octavius,
he pictures himself walking on the shore near Ostia, accompanied by his friend
Caecilius and the Christian Octavius. On passing a statue of Serapis,
Caecilius makes a devout gesture: he brings his hand to his lips. For this
common expression of reverence he is then indirectly criticized by Octavius.
The Christian admonishes Minucius:
boni uiri est, Marce frater, hominem domi forisque lateri tuo inhaerentem sic
in hac inperitiae uulgaris caecitate deserere, ut tam luculento die in lapides
eum pateris inpingere, effigiatos sane et unctos et coronatos, cum scias huius
erroris non minorem ad te quam ad ipsum infamiam redundare."
a friend who indoors and out clings to your side, no good man, brother Marcus,
has the right to leave him in the thick darkness of vulgar ignorance, and
allow him in broad daylight to wreck himself on stones, however carved and
anointed and garlanded they may be, when you know that the shame of his error
redounds no less to your discredit than to his."'[xiv]
incident then leads to the discussion which takes up the rest of the work.
there is a close parallel to Apuleius' text.[xv]
We may compare the words lapides... effigiatos... et unctos et coronatos,
with Apuleius' truncus dolamine effigiatus, lapides unguine
delibutus, and fagus pellibus coronata. In another Apuleian passage
(Apology 56,6), to which we will return shortly, Apuleius refers to the
religious elements lapidem unctum aut ramum coronatum.
custom of anointing stones was considered typical of pagan religion, or in the
Christian view, idolatria.[xvi]
We also see it in Lucian's satirical work on the false prophet Alexander:
he but saw anywhere a stone smeared with holy oil or adorned with a wreath, he
would fall on his face forthwith, kiss his hand, and stand beside it for a
long time making vows and craving blessings from it.[xvii]
it may be added, should not be read as a thorough criticism of the custom as
such: Lucian merely puts scorn on Alexander who pretends piety and exaggerates
these parallels, what is so striking about the Apuleian passage is not that it
refers to the custom, but that it actually celebrates it. It seems to
defy any possible criticism and proudly brings pagan piety to the foreground.
Admittedly, Minucius Felix is dated later than Apuleius, at around 195 AD,[xviii]
but the distance in years is not immense, since the pieces in the Florida
must be dated to 160-170 AD. It is not impossible, I would suggest, that
Apuleius is partly writing in response to Christian attacks on Roman religion.
for this suggestion may be found in other parts of the Florida. In Fl.
10 we are presented with a whole range of divine powers connected to celestial
bodies: Sol and Luna, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Saturn, and Mars. There are
also mediae deum potestates, the speaker continues, like Amor and other
we see how Apuleius touches on what appears to be one of his primary
interests, the various classes of demons. This originally Platonic
concept is mentioned several times in his works,[xix] and is even the basic theme of the discourse De
Deo Socratis, which mentions many more Gods (1-3), and defines and groups
the various demons (7-18). Not all these 'demons' are frightening, but many of
them are salutary and helpful and must hence be honoured and cultivated, like
Socrates did with his private daimon.
is hardly surprising that Christians fiercely combatted this Platonic
demonology. The most famous example is Augustine's extensive discussion on
Apuleius' discourse in C.D. 8,[xx]
but there is evidence of much earlier discussion. Already Tertullian, writing
only one generation after Apuleius in Africa, can be seen refuting pagan ideas
on demons.[xxi] So here again, it would seem probable that Apuleius'
conscious treatment of the theme reflects contemporaneous discussions, which
are likely to have gained new relevance by the surge of Christianity.[xxii]
is possible to interpret other elements in the Florida along these
lines, but this would lead us into the field of speculation. What does emerge
from a reading of Florida and De Deo Socratis, is an overall
picture of profoundly pagan sympathies. Given the notion that Apuleius must
have been aware of Christianity and disliked it, would it not be natural to
call this a consciously non-Christian attitude?
pagan religiosity may also be found in the last work of Apuleius which I will
now consider, his defensive speech Apology (Pro Se De Magia).
chronology of Apuleius' works may involve many problems, but the Apology
can at least be dated with a fair degree of certainty. The mention of Claudius
Maximus, the judge presiding over
the trial, allows us to fix the year at 158/159 AD. So the Apology is
earlier than the Florida, and probably much earlier than the Met.[xxiii],
and one may raise the question whether traces of Christianity or
anti-Christian attitudes are likely to be found here at all.
the rapid growth of Christianity in Africa must be dated somewhat later than
158, it did not occur unexpectedly and the new religion must have started
spreading earlier. Moreover, Apuleius may well have experienced it during his
stays abroad. We know he travelled and studied at least in Athens, Samos,
Phrygia, and Rome,[xxiv]
that is, in places where Christianity was visible and posed problems to
intellectuals and authorities at a much earlier date than in Africa.
was a provincial intellectual of broad interests, a man eager to pursue his
studies in the centres of the ancient world, a disciple willing to learn the
wisdom of Greek and Roman culture, to master both Greek and Latin (neither
being his native tongue), and a man with profound religious and occult
interests, as he indicates himself in the speech:
pleraque initia in Graecia participaui. Eorum quaedam signa et monumenta
tradita mihi a sacerdotibus sedulo conseruo. Nihil insolitum, nihil incognitum
dico. Vel unius Liberi patris mystae qui adestis, scitis quid domi conditum
celetis et absque omnibus profanis tacite ueneremini. At ego, ut dixi,
multiiuga sacra et plurimos ritus et uarias cerimonias studio ueri et officio
erga deos didici.
participated in several sacred rites in Greece. I keep certain tokens and
objects of these rites which the priests gave to me. I claim nothing unusual,
nothing unknown. Even you, initiates of the one father Liber, who are here
know what you keep hidden at home and honor silently, away from all
non‑initiates. Certainly I, as I was saying, have learned manifold
rituals, numerous rites, and various ceremonies out of an eagerness for truth
and service to the gods.'[xxv]
in Rome too Apuleius must have been studying, attending teachers, looking for
new philosophical and religious ideas, and participating in discussions. Given
the intellectual climate in Rome at around 150 AD, it is quite inconceivable
that he would not have come across Christians. Schmidt (above, note 2;
p.60) already pointed out that in Rome Apuleius is likely to have met his
fellow African Fronto, a generation older than himself and a famous author,
who is known to have openly fought Christianity at this early stage, in a
speech against the Christian eucharist.[xxvi]
is a small, but significant detail in the Apology that also points in
this direction. At the beginning (2,11), Apuleius mentions the city prefect of
Rome, Lollius Urbicus, who in an earlier case passed sentence on Apuleius'
opponent Aemilianus, and had nearly put him to death. This Lollius Urbicus,
who may have been present at Apuleius' trial (the text of 3,1 is unclear
here), and who is referred to with great respect by Apuleius, is best known
from a rather different source, a famous Christian text written in Rome at the
time. In Justin's Second Apology, the author, faced with increasing
public outcries against Christians and the threat of persecution, sharply
protests against the execution of three Christians. These executions, which
took place at about 152 AD, had been ordered by this same Lollius Urbicus who
is so kindly addressed by Apuleius in 158.[xxvii]
It is more than likely that the two met in Rome, and so, inevitably, Apuleius
must have been well aware of the whole affair. Nonetheless, Apuleius remains
entirely silent, both on this affair and on Christianity as such.
and uncivilized behaviour
should we infer from this? If we discard the untenable idea that Apuleius had
Christian sympathies himself, a wild theory advanced some decades ago by L.
there remains only one possibility: that already by this early date Apuleius
felt unsympathetic towards Christians.
the speech, Apuleius poses as a champion of pagan culture and religion, a
devout devotee of the gods, and a pious worshipper who even keeps cult objects
and worships them in private (e.g. Apol. 53-56 and 61-65).
a difference, so he suggests, with his opponent Aemilianus! Shortly after his
religious self-portrait quoted above, we learn more about the private life of
ego scio nonnullos et cum primis Aemilianum istum facetiae sibi habere res
diuinas deridere. Nam, ut audio partim Oeensium qui istum nouere, nulli deo ad
hoc aeui supplicauit, nullum templum frequentauit, si fanum aliquod
praetereat, nefas habet adorandi gratia manum labris admouere. Iste uero nec
dis rurationis, qui eum pascunt ac uestiunt, segetis ullas aut uitis aut
gregis primitias impertit. Nullum in uilla eius delubrum situm, nullus locus
aut lucus consecratus. Ecquid ego de luco et delubro loquor? Negant uidisse se
qui fuere unum saltem in finibus eius aut lapidem unctum aut ramum coronatum.
Igitur adgnomenta ei duo indita: Charon, ut iam dixi, ob oris et animi
diritatem, sed alterum, quod libentius audit, ob deorum contemptum, Mezentius.
I know some people, and prominent among them that Aemilianus, who think they
are witty when they make fun of religion. For, as I hear from some people in
Oea who know him, he has never up to this point in his life offered a prayer
to any god, he hasn't visited any temple, and if he should happen to pass some
consecrated place, he thinks it's a crime to bring his hand to his lips out of
reverence. In addition, the man has never shared any of the first harvest or
the pick of the vine or flock with the gods of the countryside who nourish and
clothe him, there is no cleansing shrine in his villa, no sacred grove or
place. Why should I speak of sacred groves and shrines? Those who have been on
his property say they haven't seen a single anointed stone or wreathed bough
there. So he has been given two nicknames: Charon, as I already mentioned, on
account of the frightfulness of his face and his soul, and the other, which he
acknowledges readily on account of his contempt for the gods, is Mezentius.'[xxix]
is, as a whole, a devastating picture. In an attempt to disparage his accuser,
Apuleius delivers a fullblown attack ad hominem. As such, invective
techniques were quite common and accepted in Roman courts. But here the
picture contains remarkable details. Aemilianus is not just generally labeled
as impious and godless, he is a real enemy and opponent of Roman
religion, carefully avoiding temples and having no sacred spots at home.
Worse, he does not bring any sacrifices to the gods, he refuses to make the
reverent gesture of kissing one's hand in passing a sacred place, he does not
possess a lapidem unctum aut ramum coronatum, he despises the gods, and
feels proud of being called Mezentius, the Vergilian archetype of one who
scorns and denies the Roman gods.[xxx]
anyone pushing his resistance to Roman religion so far could easily be taken
for a Christian. The details seem carefully selected to make exactly this
impression: in Minucius Felix' dialogue we already met with the typically
pagan elements of reverently kissing the hand and worshipping anointed stones
and wreaths. In this earlier Apuleian text, we see these elements combined
with signs of an active refusal to conform to the Roman religious customs. A
Roman who felt insensitive to religion would be pictured as indifferent or
negligent at worst; but such behaviour as Aemilianus is credited with,
especially where sacrifice and worship is concerned, is typical for early
suggestion, first raised by Emanuele Griset,[xxxi]
that in Apuleius' counter-attack Aemilianus is subtly pictured as a Christian,
received a rather lukewarm reception by scholars,[xxxii]
much like Walsh's idea on the Met. But given all the evidence gathered
so far, much is to be said for it.
elements from Apuleius' torrent of abuse and invective now fall into place.
For instance, he consistently describes Aemilianus as one who attacks only
indirectly, secretively, lurking and hiding in the dark, whereas he himself
stands out in the light for all to see. Aemilianus, he says, is in fact
invisible, hiding in his humble state and fleeing the light (humilitate
abdita et lucifuga, 16,13). Now the rare lucifugus can be an
epithet of insects (e.g. Verg. G. 4,243) or a term of abuse for people,
but is it merely a coincidence that the word returns in anti-Christian
polemics? In Minucius Felix we see the Christians described by Caecilius as
persons who secretly gather during night-time, a latebrosa et lucifuga
despising temples and gods and laughing at ceremonies. Aemilianus is also
incessantly mocked and insulted for being poor, illiterate, lacking all
culture and refinement, and being a proper rustic. Such insults were also
hurled at Christians.
other passage of the Apology may be briefly mentioned here. In 90,6
Apuleius daringly and even provokingly gives a list of magicians, in response
to the claim of magic. If the opponents can point to anything relevant at all,
so he bluffs:
ille sim Carmendas uel Damigeron uel ┼
Moses uel Iohannes uel Apollobex uel ipse Dardanus uel quicumque alius post
Zoroastren et Hostanen inter magos celebratus est.
be a Carmendas or a Damigeron or ... Moses or John or Apollobex or Dardanus
himself or whatever other celebrated magicians there were after Zoroaster and
"..." corresponds to the Latin reading his. This is often
emended to is, hic, or iste ('this' or 'that'), but
alternatively, another name may have been lost here. The most intriguing
reconstruction is uel Iesus <uel> Moses, based on a conjecture of
Bosscha. The name of Jesus could originally have been written as Hisus
or in its abbreviated form as IHS. Without doubt, among non-Christians
Jesus, like Moses, had the reputation of a magician.[xxxv]
A combination of Jesus and Moses, two Jewish names,[xxxvi]
would seem quite natural in this context and add to the evidence of
anti-Christian sentiments collected up till now.
was Aemilianus a Christian? This question must at least remain
unanswered, as we have only Apuleius' biased and one-sided defence to go by.
It seems unlikely, on the whole, that a real Christian would sue a famous
orator for magic, a charge to which he could easily have been liable himself,
given the general prejudices against Christians. At this point, I would not
venture to go so far as Griset and others did.
in the end, truth is not what matters to Apuleius in his speech: all he
wants is to persuade the judge and win his case. He employs every possible
means to blacken and deprecate his opponents. Part of his strategy is to
picture Aemilianus as an enemy of Roman religion, much along the lines of
anti-Christian polemics as we know them from the apologists. On the other
hand, he proudly presents himself as a devotee of the pagan religion which
plays such a major role in all his works, including the Met. In both
rhetorical strategies, I would argue, he shows a reaction to Christianity,
which must have been 'in the air' in Africa by the time of his defence.
does not mean, however, that in Apuleius' eyes Christianity was to be taken
entirely seriously. To an established orator and scholar like Apuleius,
steeped in Roman culture, Christianity cannot have counted as a relevant
school of thought worthy of academic discussion, or as something to be openly
combatted or even to be mentioned in public: it was no more than a despicable
sect and so a convenient target for satire and rhetorically effective
would imply an important corrective to the theory that the Isis religion of
the Met. was presented as an alternative for paganism. Given all
these indications, Christianity cannot have been entirely unknown to the
speaker, the officials, and the attending audience. But it is Apuleius'
silence in the Apology and other works which is the most telling: as he
does not mention the Christians by name, they remain outside his direct focus.
They are simply not considered 'salonfähig'. Whatever is ridiculed is not
consequence, Apuleius does not seem to present a proper alternative, although
he may well have felt inspired to underscore pagan religious elements more
strongly. But it is merely traditional religion which he presents, not the
alternative to a new religion.
this material, one may confirm the theory on anti-Christian sentiments in the Met.
by extending it to Apuleius' other works, notably the Apology. On the
other hand, Apuleius' silence and his satirical and scornful attitude suggest
that he does not take the new religion very seriously, but, at best, as a
useful target to make clever insinuations against his opponents.
this Apuleius would be completely in harmony with the attitude of much of the
male Roman elite in the first centuries throughout the Empire. As in many
other areas, he seems to be an exponent of the traditional ancient culture
which would prove so slow to change into a Christian culture.
case of Pudentilla
Apuleius as an exponent of the 'male' elite, one is tempted to consider for a
moment Apuleius' wife, Pudentilla. In the Apology, Apuleius pictures
her in various ways, dependent upon his rhetorical aim of the moment. She in
turn appears as a sensible housewife and a rational landowner, an unattractive
woman madly in love, and suffering from disease, or as a literary model of
But some elements in her portrait must have been beyond doubt: she is an
extremely rich widow, who has lived chastely for more than ten years after her
husband had died and who marries Apuleius for good, medical reasons. She knows
Greek, is even able to write it, and devotes part of her time to studying. She
also lavishly donates money to the people on the occasion of her son's
wedding, but she herself remarries secretly in a country house, partly to
avoid all the obligatory visits and meetings (87,11). By ancient standards,
the last element is a remarkable expression of unsociable behaviour.
rich and cultured woman is bound to have been interested in religion, given
the social and intellectual climate of her age. But conversely, she might also
have been an interesting woman for the young Christian church. Especially in
late antiquity, many rich widows were known as supporters of the church.[xxxviii]
Pudentilla would, for one thing, perfectly fit the profile of the decent
by remarrying in the first place, and by choosing a non-Christian husband of a
lower social rank in an attempt to safeguard her freedom and financial
interests, Pudentilla can hardly qualify as a celibate Christian widow. In
fact, she seems to break about every rule set out by Tertullian for Christian
widows in his Ad uxorem, composed only two generations after Apuleius
In this interesting treatise on the position and moral duties of Christian
widows, women like Pudentilla seem quite out of place in the African church.
At best she could be regarded as the model of a rich pagan woman not
attracted by the church: sordent talibus ecclesiae (2,8,3).
importantly, there is simply no evidence in Apuleius' text to assume that
Pudentilla held any Christian sympathies. On the contrary, in a letter to her
son which is paraphrased in the text (70,5-8), she says her son is fit for
marriage 'by the will of the gods': deum voluntate (70,7). This may
only be a conventional expression, but even then, the reference to more than
one God seems to exclude any thought of Christianity.
the later Christian author Sidonius Apollinaris (5th cent.), Pudentilla does
not seem to be a special case. In a letter to a friend, in which he advises
him to read incessantly, he adds:
patiaris ut te ab hoc proposito propediem coniunx domum feliciter ducenda
deflectat, sisque oppido meminens quod olim Marcia Hortensio, Terentia Tullio,
Calpurnia Plinio, Pudentilla Apuleio, Rusticiana Symmacho legentibus
meditantibusque candelas et candelabra tenuerunt.
must not allow the thought that you will soon be happily married to turn you
from this determination, ever remembering that in the old times of Marcia and
Hortensius, Terentia and Tullius, Calpurnia and Pliny, Pudentilla and
Apuleius, Rusticiana and Symmachus, the wives held candles and candlesticks
for their husbands whilst they read and composed.'[xl]
we see Pudentilla presented as an example of the loyal wife of a famous
writer. But a Christian woman holding candlesticks for her openly pagan
husband, who freely wrote on Roman Gods and demons, to say nothing of magic
and sex? That seems quite inconceivable.[xli]
latest changes here: